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Is Brexit to blame for UK-France travel delays and will this affect every holiday?

Once again the beginning of a busy holiday period has seen long queues in the UK as British visitors attempt to travel to France - so what is causing this and is there any prospect of things getting better?

Is Brexit to blame for UK-France travel delays and will this affect every holiday?
Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP

The past few days have once again seen long queues in the UK port of Dover, with reports of coach parties waiting up to 16 hours for a crossing, and queues of cars reported on Thursday ahead of the Easter weekend.

This comes after passengers reported 12-hour waits in Dover over the summer – so is this simply the new reality of travel from the UK to France? And is Brexit to blame?

Easter

The most recent travel chaos happened at the start of the Easter holidays.

It began last week when the UK school holidays started and initially mostly affected coach parties travelling from Dover – the Easter break is a popular time for UK school trips to Europe – with groups reporting waits at the ferry port of up to 16 hours, while some schools simply cancelled their trips altogether.

Long queues also began to build on Thursday at the port, ahead of the four-day Easter weekend which is also a popular travel time to France.  

Passengers travelling by Eurotunnel, Eurostar and by air saw fewer problems, with the exception of some flights cancelled because of the French air traffic controllers’ strike.

So what caused the delays?

As seems to be an enduring pattern – it depends on who you ask. 

The port of Dover said that it was a combination of a peak travel period with higher than expected volumes of coach parties combined with “the lengthier border checking process that coach parties must now undertake” while Dover’s Conservative MP blamed the French.

The Port of Dover CEO then gave an interview to UK newspaper The Independent in which he singled out French border police for being “very, very helpful” in assisting in clearing the queues, and explained that passport checks simply take more time since Brexit.

Brexit

So what is the “lengthier border checking process” that the Port of Dover refers to? This refers to the fact that the border between France and the UK is now an external border of the EU.

Because of the nature of the Brexit deal requested by the UK, all UK citizens entering the EU must now have their passports checked and – if applicable – stamped by French border control agents, a process that takes significantly longer than the pre-Brexit checking process.

Bannister has previously estimated that the new checks mean that it takes 90 seconds for a family of four in a car to pass through French immigration. Previously, the encounter would last just a few seconds.

While that doesn’t sound like a lot, once you multiply it by the tens of thousands of passengers who pass through busy crossing points like the Port of Dover, it can add hours onto crossing times.

It is a particular problem for coaches, when passports for every passenger have to be checked and stamped – scaling up to a 53-seat coach, the time taken represents 20 minutes per vehicle, estimates UK travel journalist Simon Calder.

So is this just a feature of UK travel now?

While problems at Dover are becoming regular, it’s not true to say that there are always problems or even always problems at peak times – the Christmas getaway passed largely without incident.

However, the post-Brexit checking processes undoubtedly takes more time and adds stress onto the system – this combined with a peak travel time and any extra factors such as bad weather or staff shortages can therefore quickly escalate into extremely long waits.

Port authorities over the Easter weekend declared a major incident and ferry companies put on extra sailings before service was able to return to normal.

The British Brexit-supporting MP John Redwood, on the other hand, suggested that people abandon the idea of a holiday in France.

Is it worse at Dover?

Due to the Le Touquet agreement, French border force agents work in the UK ports of Dover and Folkestone and the Eurostar terminal of St Pancras (while British agents work in French ports and Gare du Nord). It is this, combined with the huge volume of traffic between France and the UK, that is the reason behind post-Brexit travel delays being seen largely in British ports.

READ ALSO What is the Le Touquet treaty?

Eurostar staff at London St Pancras face the same issues, but because of limited processing space at the terminal, Eurostar bosses have opted to reduce services between the UK and France. This means that passengers don’t face the same type of queues – but the flip side of this is fewer services and higher prices.

The port of Calais faces the same passport control as Dover, but generally sees fewer problems – this is largely due to the fact that the French government spent €44 million updating the infrastructure of its ports in order to prepare for Brexit. 

Will this ever get better?

There might be a glimmer of hope for school trips, as French president Emmanuel Macron and UK prime minister Rishi Sunak announced a ‘simplified’ process for school trips after their summit in March, which could help solve the specific problem that coach parties were having over Easter.

The UK’s former ambassador to France told The Local that this announcement likely relates to reinstating a system similar to the collective travel document – which would mean only once document would be needed for each coach trip. Full details are, however, yet to be announced and the system is not yet in place.

Beyond this, there isn’t much chance of things changing and things might in fact get worse.

This is due to the introduction of the EU’s new EES system which will require enhanced border checks – including biometric data and fingeprinting – something that many travel industry figures have repeatedly warned will make border problems a lot worse.

The start date for the introduction of EES has recently been postponed.

READ ALSO EES and ETIAS: The big changes for travel in Europe

Member comments

  1. One thing only briefly mentioned in the article is overbooking by the ferry companies. They have said “a higher than expected number of coaches” have added to waiting times. Surely they knew how many were expected and should have planned accordingly?

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DRIVING

Camper van warning for UK driving licence holders in France

UK driving licence holders who are swapping their licence for a French one have been warned that there are limits to the type of vehicles that can be driven with their new licence, after a clarification from French authorities.

Camper van warning for UK driving licence holders in France

The post-Brexit saga of driving licences for Brits living in France has been long, complicated and painful.

It is, however, now largely resolved – a deal has been agreed, the enormous backlog of applications has been cleared and most applications for a driving licence swap are proceeding fairly smoothly

READ ALSO How to swap your UK licence for a French one

There was, however, one issue remaining – whether the new French licence would allow the same rights to drive certain types of larger vehicles, including camper vans and motorhomes. 

What’s the issue?

Anyone who obtained a UK driving licence after 1997 is entitled to drive vehicles up to 3,500kg maximum authorised mass (MAM) with up to 8 passenger seats. People wishing to drive vehicles up to 8,250kg maximum authorised mass (MAM) – for example minibuses or the larger types of campervan – need to take an extra test.

However, those who got their UK licences before 1997 were entitled to drive vehicles up to 8,250kg without needing to take an extra test.

The problem is that the standard French driving licence – the Permis B – does not allow for the driving of larger vehicles without a separate test. Permis B holders can drive vehicles weighing up to 3.5 tonnes with eight passengers or fewer.

So for people who got their UK licences after 1997 it’s basically a like-for-like swap.

However, those who got their licences before 1997 found that their French licence allowed them to drive fewer categories of vehicles than their UK one.

This has been a particular problem for enthusiasts of camper vans or mobile homes – some of whom had already purchased larger vehicles that were legal on their UK licence, but which they now cannot drive on a French licence.

The issue does not affect people who live in the UK – they can continue to drive larger camper vans and other vehicles in France, in accordance with the conditions of their UK driving licence.

The decision

The post-Brexit driving licence deal was finally agreed in 2021, and the gradual swap of UK driving licences for French residents began.

The question of the exchange of rights for larger vehicles, however, has been under negotiation ever since.

But French authorities have now definitely clarified that the larger vehicle rights of older UK licences cannot be exchanged for an equivalent French licence without taking a test.

Anyone who already has a French Permis B – the standard driving licence – will need to take the extra French test in order to regain their rights to drive heavier cars, vans and camper vans.

The UK government’s Living in France page has now been updated to reflect this clarification.

You can find full information on the options for a French test, as well as the relevant French driving licence categories for larger vehicles, HERE or in English on the Facebook group Driving in France – French Licence Application.

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